I’ve recently signed up to attend a three-week course on champagnes and other sparkling wines, sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s outreach program. I attended my first class Monday night and, on the assumption that we are interested in drinking as well as eating (!) I thought I’d share a little of what I learned. What follows is a very basic explanation!
Although we tend to refer to most sparkling wines as “champagne”, technically, champagnes are sparkling wines produced in the Champagne area or appellation of France and are primarily made from chardonnay, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier grapes.
Using one of four methods produces the bubbles in sparkling wines. The champagne method involves first fermenting the grapes in a tank and then bottling the result, adding some yeast and sugar and sealing the bottle. The yeast ferments in the bottle, creating the bubbles. After a period of time the bottles are opened, the sediment is removed and the bottles are permanently corked for sale. When you see “champenois” on the label, it means the wine was made using the champagne method. The champenois method is used for making more complex sparkling wines.
Like the champenois, the cuvee or transfer method, involves a second fermentation in the bottle to achieve some complexity, after which the contents are transferred into a tank to clarify and pressurize the wine before it is re-bottled. The charmat or tank method involves second fermentation in a specially pressurized tank, instead of in the bottle. These wines are also bottled under pressure. This is a less expensive process than the champenois method and is common with proseccos and other light sparkling wines. The charmat method produces a smaller, longer lasting bubble than the CO2 method. Using the same method as making soda, some sparkling wines use the CO2 method in which CO2 is injected into the bottle after corking. This method is the least expensive and produces larger bubbles, which dissipate quickly.
Unfortunately, sparkling wine labels don’t always help you figure out what’s going on inside the bottle. On Italian sparkling wines you may see the term “metodo classico”, which refers to the champagne method. While other bottles created using the champagne method may say champenois but some won’t. “Methode Traditionnelle” also refers to the champagne method. I don’t think you’ll ever see CO2 on a label but price will help you there. A $10 bottle of sparkling wine is not one that was created using the champenois method.
From a taste standpoint it’s good to know that Brut means a dry wine with a sugar content of less than 1.5%. Extra Bruts have less than 0.6% sugar. Extra dry is slightly sweeter than a Brut with about 1.2 to 2% sugar. Secs are 1.7 to 3.5% sugar and Demi-Secs are 3.3 – 5% sugar. Celebration wines are also very sweet.
When you see “vintage” on the label that means that all the grapes used in that particular bottle were harvested during the same year. Non-vintage means the wine is made from grapes (or wines) from different years, blended together. You might see the terms “vintage” or “non-vintage” on the label or you might not. If you don’t see a year on the label, you are probably looking at a non-vintage wine. Vintage wines can be cellared longer than non-vintage wines with vintage wines from “good” years being cellared the longest of all. A good, vintage champagne or sparkling wine can be safely cellared for 15 – 20 years.
That’s a lot of information, isn’t it? The only real way to figure out what you like and what you don’t is to drink some sparkling wines! In this week’s class we tried eight different sparkling wines. It was no surprise at all to discover that the dryer, less sweet wines appealed to me the most. Although I consider myself a red wine drinker, I like lighter, brighter sparkling wines. Did you know that there are red sparking wines? I didn’t. I especially liked a Spanish sparkling pinot noir. We also had an excellent sparkling Shiraz from South Australia. Evidently the sparkling Shiraz is as common in Australia as prosecco is in Italy.
Summer and sparkling wines go hand in hand. Go shopping in the sparkling wine section of your local wine shop and host a tasting! See what you and your friends like the most. Here are a few excellent food choices to serve with your sparkling wines:
Brie goes well with a light and fruity Champagne.
Mild Cheddar goes well with sharp, bright Champagnes.
Chevre pairs with stronger Champagnes.
Colby goes well with medium weight Champagnes.
Pair Edams and Goudas with nutty Champagnes.
Fois Gras pairs nicely with gentle, delicate Champagnes.
Raw oysters also pair well with delicate Champagnes but avoid lemon and vinegar preparations on the oysters.
Sushi and Champagne go hand-in-hand!
Shellfish like lobsters, shrimp and scallops are also good choices.
Chicken with olive oil but no lemon or vinegar flavors pair well with Champagne.
Strawberries are a classic for romantic occasions but use sweet sparklers like Asti Spumanti.
Tarts and crumbles, fruit puddings, shortbread and almond cookies are all good flavors to match with sweeter, dessert champagnes.